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Originally published November 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 6, 2008 at 2:31 PM

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Book review

Toni Morrison's powerful new novel "A Mercy" tracks, examines forces of slavery

Toni Morrison's new novel "A Mercy" examines slavery in its early days in America — the end of the 17th century — and bears witness to the genesis of a powerful institution of both physical and psychological oppression.

Special to The Seattle Times

Audio on the Web

Toni Morrison reads excerpts from "A Mercy" at www.npr.org/books. The excerpts and an interview with Morrison are available as streaming audio, podcast or download on NPR.org.

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"A Mercy"

by Toni Morrison

Knopf, 176 pp., $23.95

Toni Morrison's newest novel, her ninth, reads like the ur-text for all her previous fiction. Coincidentally or not, it also offers a bookend to a historic presidential candidacy that has prompted talk of a "post-racial" society.

Morrison's book, "A Mercy," examines what might be called a "pre-racial" America, the formative years at the end of the 17th century when our forebears still had a chance of turning their collective backs against slavery. As the 1993 Nobel Prize winner shows in this slight but powerful story, many forces — economic, sociological, psychological — combined to reinforce racism and sexism before they were institutionalized.

"A Mercy" is set amid the Bermuda Triangle of trade that fueled the pre-colonial trans-Atlantic economy: Europeans enslaved Africans and took them to the West Indies, where they were traded for rum and molasses, which was delivered to New England. The wealth created then returned to the Old World.

In 1676, after a restive slave population incited rebellion in the mid-Atlantic region, new laws were put in place to tighten the gentry's control over blacks, mulattoes and freedmen. The willful exploitation of human capital was fast becoming fundamental to the flow of commerce.

In Morrison's novel, this nasty business sits uneasily with Jacob Vaark, an up-from-the-bootstraps entrepreneur of Dutch-English heritage who represents the European immigrant (white, male, ambitious). Vaark, eager to earn his fortune along the Eastern Seaboard, represents the troubled conscience of the nation that's yet to emerge.

For Vaark, "flesh was not a commodity." He earns his living as a trader of goods, not people. But the members of his household, whose labor is required to manage his 120 wooded acres while he's on the road, include a rainbow coalition of women who are subject to his benign but decidedly masculine authority. His mail-order bride, Rebekka, takes pride of place, assisted by the self-possessed native American Lina, the black woman-child Sorrow and the "love-disabled" Florens, a slave from Angola.

"A Mercy" unfolds poetically, introducing these characters through alternating points of view that contrast the verdant landscape with the struggle to survive, much less prosper. Arriving from England, Rebekka is astonished by "trees taller than a cathedral, wood for warmth so plentiful it made her laugh." But as one baby after another fails to thrive and her 5-year-old daughter dies after a fall, Rebekka's laughter fades.

Notably, she leans on her servant Lina, not the white women in the religious community down the road.

Meanwhile, Florens' strange diction and obsession with the blacksmith weave hypnotically through the book. She more than the others expresses the innocence of a land wide-eyed with possibility but lacking in guile. Hypnotized by the blacksmith, a free black man with healing powers who helped Vaark build his new home, Florens goes to fetch him after Rebekka contracts smallpox.

When the blacksmith returns home to find Florens jealously hurting the young boy he has taken under his wing, their exchange is brief but definitive:

"Your head is empty and your body is wild," he declares.

"I am adoring you," she replies.

"And a slave to that too."

"You alone own me."

"Own yourself, woman, and leave us be."

Here Morrison vaults over America's legacy of victimizing women and minorities to claim the more provocative turf that infuses much of her fiction. "A Mercy" tracks the beginnings of a system of oppression by focusing on the psychology of that oppression.

In this pivotal scene between two black people, only one has internalized a sense of inferiority. Tragically, forces were already aligned to tip the balance, and a society built along racial lines soon became an idée fixe of the American experiment.

Ellen Heltzel is a Portland writer and book critic whose book, "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures," written with Margo Hammond, is out this month from Da Capo Press.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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